Greater Greater Washington

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Transit


LA's Orange Line shows the way for Montgomery BRT

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy isn't so sure about many of the proposed Montgomery County Bus Rapid Transit lines, because of the county's spread-out, suburban character. But I took a trip on Los Angeles' first BRT line, which shows how BRT could indeed transform suburban commute patterns.


Boarding an Orange Line bus at Reseda. All photos by the author.

Built in 2005 and extended earlier this summer, the Orange Line runs between North Hollywood, Warner Center and Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It's a suburban area with over 1.7 million people, known for wide boulevards, tract houses and shopping malls that gave rise to the infamous "Valley Girl."

Like Montgomery County, it has not one but several "downtowns." And like the Valley, Montgomery County has become more diverse, with more younger, immigrant or low-income residents who depend on transit, but also a growing interest in alternatives to driving among more well-heeled residents.

Why does the Orange Line work? It goes where people want to go, it's frequent, and it connects to the subway, major bus routes, and commuter rail. But more importantly, it gives riders a fast, pleasant experience that rivals driving in a place known for its car culture.

Orange Line Platform, North Hollywood
Passengers board a bus at North Hollywood Station.

The Orange Line includes many of the same features as Montgomery's BRT proposal, giving it the feel of a train. For instance, the stations are more substantial than normal bus shelters, with ticket machines, maps and benches, and signs saying when the next bus is coming. They have distinctive canopies that provide shade while giving the line a unique visual identity.

The buses are long and sleek, with big windows that make the inside feel bright and airy. They're actually the same buses the Los Angeles Metro uses elsewhere, though with a different paint scheme. Passengers pay by tapping a smart card at the station, and when the bus arrives, they can get on or off using any door, as they would on a train. I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for buses to arrive when I rode the Orange Line around 2pm, though they were still packed.

What makes the Orange Line really effective, however, is that buses have their own special lanes for the entire 18-mile route, the result of using a former rail line and a wide boulevard. There are also special sensors that turn stoplights green when buses approach so they don't have to stop. This allows buses to reach speeds of up to 55 miles an hour, cutting commutes across the Valley nearly in half and making it as fast, if not faster, than driving. The busway is lushly landscaped, while a popular bike and foot path runs alongside it. The result is a commute that's not only convenient, but very pleasant.

Bike Path + Transitway, Between Woodman + Valley College Stations
A bike path next to the Orange Line busway.

As a result, ridership has almost doubled from 16,000 people each weekday in 2005 to 31,000 today. That's the same number of riders planners anticipate will use certain BRT lines in Montgomery. By comparison, the busiest conventional bus routes in both the Valley and Montgomery County carry just 10,000 riders per weekday.

One rider told me, completely unprompted, how much he liked the Orange Line. "Thank God for Metro," he said. "I'm glad they have all these buses and trains now. Back in the day, we didn't have none of this and you had to have a car."

Unfortunately, Montgomery County's BRT plan wouldn't always give buses their own lanes, even in congested areas like downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. Buses would be stuck in traffic with everyone else, making it a lousy alternative to the car.

Busway on Chandler Boulevard, Laurel Canyon Station
Orange Line buses run in their own lanes on busy Chandler Boulevard.

That said, at $25 million per mile, the Orange Line cost nearly twice as much to build as Montgomery's BRT is expected to, and we can't afford to make that kind of investment in places where it's not warranted. Some areas in the 160-mile system envisioned by the county's Transit Task Force might be better suited for smaller improvements, like the Metro Rapid buses in Los Angeles that inspired MetroExtra service here.

However, in areas where transit use is already high, we should go all out to encourage more of it. The Orange Line didn't require taking away lanes from cars, but we will have to in Montgomery County to get the same quality of service. It won't be easy, but it can and should be done.

It's no surprise that some officials, like County Councilmember Nancy Floreen, are skeptical of Montgomery's BRT plan. "This is suburbia," she told the Washington Examiner. "To assume that everyone is going to switch to a nice, snazzy looking bus is not particularly realistic."

And she's right: no one's going to ride the bus, especially if we don't make it worthwhile. The Orange Line shows us that in the right places, you can get suburban riders on the bus if you give them a fast, frequent, and pleasant experience. We'd do well to follow their example.

Check out this slideshow of the Orange Line.

Development


Mission Meridian Village shows suburban density done right

It's commonly accepted that we should build up around public transit, but how can you do it in a way that respects existing neighborhoods? Yesterday, I visited Mission Meridian Village in South Pasadena, California, a project that shows how to do just that.


Mission Meridian Village. All photos by the author.

Designed by New Urbanist architects Moule & Polyzoides and developed in a public-private partnership between the city and Creative Housing Associates, Mission Meridian Village opened in 2003 across from the then-new South Pasadena Gold Line station, which connects to downtown Los Angeles.

The project is located next just off of Mission Street, a quaint shopping district like Old Town Takoma Park where light-rail trains glide past coffeehouses and bakeries. Closer to Mission Street is a larger commercial building with shops and loft apartments, while behind it are a mix of apartments, townhomes, and single-family homes that seem to blend into the surrounding neighborhood of humble Craftsman bungalows. An underground parking garage, with spaces for residents and commuters, runs under the entire site.

Duplex + Crosswalk
A duplex at Mission Meridian Village.

From the street, you see a row of duplexes, each of which has a similar scale and uses the same materials as existing homes. The only hint that these aren't ordinary houses are the little paths that lead into 3 lush courtyards, where you'll find entrances to the other homes.

Inside the Courtyard
Inside one of the courtyards.

All of this happens on 1.65 acres, about a fourth bigger than a football field. With about 67 homes, Mission Meridian Village has a density of 40 homes per acre, but it doesn't feel crowded. Each house has its own private outdoor space, be it a porch, a patio or a balcony. Meanwhile, residents have eagerly embraced the shared courtyards. Chairs and tables spill out from patios into the space, while kids' toys lie on the ground, waiting for the next game.

Mission Meridian Village is a great example of how to provide much-needed housing in a way that gives residents open space and a feeling of community. It's also an example for how to build better suburban neighborhoods where a car isn't mandatory. Most importantly, however, it's an example of how to add to a community while respecting what's already there.

Check out this slideshow of Mission Meridian Village.

Bicycling


BART pilot will test bikes on rush hour trains

WMATA's counterpart in the San Francisco Bay Area, BART, currently restricts bikes on their trains during rush hours. But they've decided to pilot letting cyclists bring their bikes on trains during the peak period.


Video from BART.

Rules for bringing bikes on BART are more nuanced than WMATA's rules, which ban bikes outright during rush hours.

On BART, for example, the printed schedules specifically show which trains do not allow bikes. Essentially, during rush hour (roughly 7-8:30 am and 4:30-6:30pm), bikes are not allowed on inbound trains. Additionally, during peak periods, bikes are not allowed to enter or exit the stations in downtown Oakland or downtown San Francisco (except cyclists can board morning trains bound for the East Bay at Embarcadero and can ride to Embarcadero from the East Bay in the afternoon).

BART requires that cyclists not board crowded trains and give priority to seniors and the disabled. That will continue to be the case under the pilot project.

The pilot will allow cyclists to ride all trains, at all times, during Fridays in August. Depending on what happens, the rules might changeor they might not.

Could the approach work in Washington? Our trains do get crowded, as do stations. But a cyclist going from Brookland to Silver Spring in the morning, would likely be on a very empty train. Could allowing bikes on outbound trains that don't pass through the core work?

The best way to find out might be through a pilot program. I'm glad to see BART is trying to get some experiential data.

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